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The Five Battlefronts in Republicans' War on the EPA

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Republicans have spent six years campaigning against President Barack Obama’s “war on coal” and promising to fight the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations. Now that Republicans have gained control of both chambers of Congress, they are in a position to declare war with the EPA.

The GOP’s plans for environmental regulation are hardly a secret. The Senate’s new leadership includes a majority leader who promised he would “get the EPA reined in,” an environmental chairman who thinks global warming is a hoax, and a newly elected senator who would like to eliminate the EPA altogether.

Their most publicized plan is to derail the Obama administration’s proposed cuts to carbon pollution, but there are plenty of other, lesser-known EPA targets that are equally at risk. Republicans are attempting to…

Fight Ozone Reduction

The EPA will announce new regulations that lower the existing standard for ozone, or smog, from a current level of 75 parts per billion, which scientists say is too high to protect public health. Exactly how ambitious this proposal is won’t be known for a few weeks. But GOP leadership has already pledged to prevent it. South Dakota Senator John Thune proposed a bill that would block any new standard until there is 85 percent compliance with the old one.

Limit the Clean Water Act

This spring, the EPA proposed a rule to answer a question that has lingered for at least a decade: Which streams and wetlands does the 42-year-old Clean Water Act protect? The EPA’s rule makes previously unregulated waters subject to new pollution restrictions—and that has made conservatives furious. The EPA  says these streams and wetlands are important to both drinking water supplies and wildlife. There are already 30 Republican senators who have already signed onto legislation to prevent this rule.

Allow Congress to Block Major Regulations

There is a little-known bill that could bring the entire regulatory process to a standstill. It’s called the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act and would require any regulation costing the economy over $100 million a year to also pass an up-or-down vote in Congress. If Congress doesn’t hold a vote within 70 days, the regulation dies. This gives a Republican Congress direct control of regulations that are all well within the EPA’s authority to enact—thanks to Congress’ own Clean Air and Water Acts. Mitch McConnell hasn’t hinted what his plans might be on this bill, which already passed the House of Representatives last year. Kentucky’s junior Senator Rand Paul already supports it.

Stall Coal Regulations With Numbers Games

Ever since the EPA hiked the assessed cost of health, property, and climate damage caused by carbon pollution—from $22 to $36 per ton—Republicans have challenged its calculation. The House has already passed a bill that prohibits the EPA from considering the benefits of avoiding carbon pollution unless a federal law allows it. The social cost of carbon forms the basis for a number of coal regulations, so by challenging this calculation, the GOP hopes to stall the EPA’s plans.

Block Carbon Pollution Regulation

McConnell has already hinted at the ways he hopes to block the EPA’s draft rule to cut power plant pollution 30 percent by 2030. The GOP still faces a Democratic minority capable of filibustering legislation, and of course Obama’s veto. But McConnell has suggested the GOP will limit the EPA by attaching policy riders to must-pass appropriations bills, raising the stakes even at the risk of a government shutdown. “It will be hard because the only good tool to do that ... is through the spending process, and if [Obama] feels strongly enough about it, he can veto the bill,” McConnell said in a recent interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader.

There is one bright spot. Natural Resources Defense Council’s director of government affairs, David Goldston, is doubtful most of this can become law. He thinks the GOP’s new power is “in one sense a good thing [because] it hasn’t been clear to the public up to now what’s at stake in the battles in Washington.” The GOP’s attacks on the EPA will make that clear.